Like a River Glorious Page 27

He breaks away, leaving my lips cold, but his fingertips still caress my back. They slip lower, toward the waist of my trousers. I feel like I’m coming out of my skin, and I have to blink to make sure we’re not surrounded by a cloud of gold dust.

“Leah,” he whispers. “Please marry me.”

It’s like a bucket of cold creek water dumped over my head. “I . . .”

“Lee McCauley!” someone calls from a distance. It’s a man’s voice, rough and snarly. “Lee McCauley!”

Jefferson and I exchange an alarmed look. “That’s Frank Dilley,” he says.

I jump up and yank on my boots, heart pounding something awful. I have no idea what he wants, but it was only a matter of time before he returned, wanting something. Maybe he’s brought my uncle with him. Maybe he’s come to run us out for good.

My five-shooter is in the saddlebag I’m using for a pillow, but I don’t dare keep it loaded, especially with so much rain about. As Jefferson dons his boots and tends to his Colt, I load all five shots. It’s a cap and ball, so I force myself to slow down and be patient, lest I drop my shot all over the ground. I buckle on my holster and slip my gun inside.

Jefferson shrugs his suspenders over his shoulders. “Let’s go,” he says, shoving his Colt into his own holster.

Henry meets us halfway to camp. Despite his hurried steps and panicked gaze, his hair is perfectly parted and combed, and his shirt crisp and fresh. “It’s Dilley,” he says. “He’s here to make a bargain, but he’ll only speak to you, Lee.”

“Where’s Hampton?” I ask.

“He already made himself scarce.”

That’s one less thing to worry about. “Well, let’s go see what Dilley has to say.”

“Reverend Lowrey is with him.”

“What?” Jefferson exclaims. He never liked Reverend Lowrey, particularly because the preacher asked me to marry him, back when we were camped at Soda Springs. Jeff liked him even less when he took off with Dilley’s Missouri men, leaving us in the middle of the desert with almost no supplies and Becky about to give birth. “That lousy, blasted—”

“C’mon, Jeff. Trouble doesn’t need our help to make itself.” It’s something Mama always said to me. As we head down the rise, my fingers find their way to her golden locket at my throat.

The camp is abuzz. Smoke curls from Becky’s stove, and the air smells of firewood and cornbread. Everyone is up, breakfasts left cold on Becky’s makeshift table. The Major, the college men, and the Buckeyes stand together in haphazard formation, united against the newcomers—Frank Dilley and Reverend Lowrey on horseback, eight or so riders behind them.

Andy and Olive huddle just outside the new half-built cabin, out of danger, I hope. Olive clings to a tightly wrapped bundle of baby sister.

“Mr. McCauley,” Frank calls out with a tip of his hat. “And Jefferson.” Frank never thought up a dumb joke he didn’t want to say at least twice.

“What are you doing here again, Frank?” I ask, my hand twitching next to my holster. “Did you come to buy our claims already?”

Because if he has, I’ve got a mother lode of no for him.

“Came to parlay,” he says. “Remember the good preacher?”

“I remember a man who left us high and dry in the desert.” Looking Lowrey straight in the eye, I add, “Thought you’d be too ashamed to show your face here.”

“Miss Westfall,” he acknowledges, getting my name right for the first time, and somehow that sends a stab of fright into my chest. The reverend clutches his Bible to his belly; he’s riding horseback, and he still carries that giant Bible. For a mean second, I imagine a snake spooking his horse, and him falling hard to the ground. “I was called to minister to miners,” he says. “And I will obey the Lord, no matter how much it costs me personally.”

Jasper snaps, “I’m sure it was a great sacrifice, turning your back on people in need to run away.” Jasper was the one who doctored Therese, to no avail. He doesn’t talk about her much, and the two never seemed like especially good friends. Still, sometimes I wonder if her death grieves him as much as it does me and Jeff.

“Get to business, Frank,” the Major says. He looks fierce, his beard wild, his forearms thick with muscle, his eyes steady and smart like a wolf’s. He’s so kind and good-natured most of the time, I sometimes forget that many consider him a war hero.

Old Tug and the Buckeyes remain watchfully silent as Frank Dilley swings a leg over and dismounts. He approaches me, and even though I yearn to take a step back and put some distance between us, I force myself to hold my ground.

“I have an offer for all of you,” he says, even though he’s only looking at me. “A certain gentleman heard tell of your recent tragedy with the fire and all.”

Jefferson steps up beside me, his hand very near his holster.

Dilley eyes him warily but continues on. “Being a fellow rich in both gold and compassion, he’s willing to offer a tidy sum for claims in this area.”

Everyone starts mumbling among themselves.

“Why this area?” I ask, even as one of the Buckeyes hollers out, “How much?”

“My employer has an eye for prospecting,” Dilley explains. “He thinks there’s plenty of gold to be had here, but it’s deep underground. It will take money, equipment, and labor to mine it out. He’s willing to invest his own wealth to make that happen.”

Jefferson and I share a glance. This is not what we expected.

“In exchange, he’ll offer three hundred dollars per claim, and everyone who sells will have first pick of paying jobs in his new outfit.”

The mumbling grows louder. It must sound like a sweet deal to the Buckeyes, but they don’t have a witchy girl helping them out. My gold sense makes our claims worth more than ten times what Dilley is offering, and only my people know it. Well, them and my uncle, who no doubt has guessed that I’d only settle my friends on the richest land available.

“Three hundred dollars is a lot of money,” Old Tug says.

“It’s not that much,” Jefferson mutters, and I give him a quick kick in the leg to shut him up.

“There’s one more condition,” Dilley says, his eyes still keen on me.

My legs turn to rubber. Whatever’s coming next, this is it. My uncle’s gambit.

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